Wildlife photography is a very rewarding, creative, and relaxing activity – that is, unless you just missed the shot of a lifetime. However, while being outdoors is generally good for your health, there are some risks involved. To help you return from your photo hunts healthy, happy, and alive (at least that’s what my wife always urges me to be), I’ve written the following tips for safe wildlife photography.
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Let someone know where you are going
Although wildlife photography may be a way for you to escape a world overwhelmed with human interaction, someone should still know where to find you if something goes wrong. It is generally recommended to go into the wild with at least two people. That’s pretty reasonable, but keep in mind that as the number of people increases, the number of photographic opportunities decreases. The equation is unforgiving.
So, always let someone know where you will be. If possible, send someone the point on the map where you are. If that’s not possible due to lack of signal coverage, do it before you leave civilization. You should also try to download an offline map if at all possible. This is doable in Google Maps, as well as a variety of other apps. I have found the excellent offline tourist maps from the Czech site Mapy.cz to be very useful. They are free, cover the whole world, and are just great.
How do you report your location if you fall down somewhere, get hurt, or maybe get bitten by a snake? First of all, it’s a good idea to know the emergency phone numbers for the countries you’re in. You should have these downloaded ahead of time. Sometimes, even if your cell phone shows zero coverage and you aren’t able to access the internet, emergency calls may still go through.
A satellite phone or personal locator beacon also comes in handy if you have one. These are growing ever-cheaper, and some smartphones these days even have such an option available for emergency SOS calls.
One last piece of advice for unhappy endings. When I’m traveling alone to some really remote places, I always carry some sort of ID with my name and nationality on it that won’t decay. I know it sounds morbid, but if something goes fatally wrong, then at least my family will know the truth.
Having a good map of the terrain is essential
In the age of smartphones, we’ve almost forgotten that paper maps exist. If you’re on your “home turf,” a paper map isn’t necessary. If you’re going into the real wilderness, you’d better have a real map in your backpack. It won’t break or run out of batteries.
Keep in mind that if you’re traveling outside of Europe or the United States, good quality (mostly military) maps may not be readily available. Instead of spending half a day looking for the only map shop in town, print a map from home beforehand and laminate it for waterproofness.
Of course, for everyday orientation in the field, a smartphone with offline maps is great. You know exactly where you are at any given moment. This is not only useful for orienting yourself, but also for finding and possibly identifying animals. In the rugged mountain terrain, many species are restricted to a narrow elevation range. It is easy to exclude similar species just by looking at the altimeter.
A smartwatch is also a good accessory for navigation. They can even be used as an external GPS module to add coordinates to your photos. Keep in mind that some models only last a few hours with GPS active. Choose a watch that does not need to be recharged too often. Some models combine a rechargeable battery with solar charging for longer battery life. If they have offline maps or waypoint features, they can take you from very remote places back to civilization without running out of power.
If you’ve left everything I’ve written above at home, or someone has robbed you of everything, all is not lost. Walking down the stream or river will bring you to civilization sooner or later. It’s a good idea to leave some clues for your eventual rescuers. A broken branch, a stone man, a mark on a tree trunk, a note with your name and intended direction, etc.
Be prepared for weather changes
This is a universal recommendation for any outdoor trip. Just because the sun is shining and the sky is clear doesn’t mean a hailstorm won’t hit in a few hours. The weather app and barometer on your watch should be your trusted allies. Still, there’s no shortage of surprises.
An ultralight poncho won’t weigh you down too much and will protect you and your photo backpack when the heavens open. It can also serve as an impromptu camouflage. Choose colors that allow you to blend in with your surroundings. Olive, brown and khaki are ideal.
Good quality shoes with good soles are essential. The right boots depend on where you’re photographing. For example, leather boots with a Gore-Tex membrane work great if you’re further from the equator. In the tropics, however, their usefulness is questionable. High humidity makes it difficult for the membrane to breathe, and leather takes a long time to dry. Personally, I’ve come to prefer lighter fabric boots with membranes that dry faster. In the very humid environment of the lowland rainforest, traditional rubber boots work best.
Don’t forget to protect your camera. It would be a shame to run for shelter when the first drops of rain start to fall. Many of the best photos are taken in extreme weather conditions. There are many different types of rain covers for camera-lens setups. If you don’t have one, a plastic bag or garbage bag liner will work in a pinch. Now let it rain.
Excessive sunlight can also be unpleasant, not just for photography, but also for spending the whole day outside. Don’t forget plenty of water, sunscreen, and a hat with a visor. If you want to save weight and bring less water, I recommend water treatment chemicals and a squeeze filter. Of course, this assumes there is water available to treat. Personally, I drank chemically treated water for several months while staying in a tent in the tropical Andes. It’s not ideal, but overall it didn’t leave any significant marks on me.
Think about the unexpected
Things don’t always go according to plan. Being in the outdoors brings many moments when you have to improvise. Probably the most common is when it gets dark before you get home. Not surprisingly, the best light for photography, and the most animal activity, occurs in the early morning and late afternoon hours. So, always keep a headlamp in your pack. It will let you keep both hands free while illuminating your path home. Not to mention that after sunset, a headlamp is good for finding animals that nature has endowed with a reflective layer on the retina of their eyes, called the tapetum lucidum.
A good quality knife is an absolute must, too. Its uses are so extensive that an entire article, or even a movie, could be devoted to it. If you don’t believe me, watch 127 Hours! In some parts of the world, a machete comes in handy. But beware, it’s not legal everywhere to carry one.
A first aid kit could be a chapter in itself. If you’re going on a one-day photo shoot, the contents will be different than if you’re going on a multi-week trip to an exotic destination. Keep the essentials in your backpack to help you deal with any acute problem. It’s a good idea to bring plasters, a bandage, or a tourniquet if you’re working with a machete. If you’re allergic to insect bites, don’t forget the anti-shock pack.
To make sure you can concentrate on getting the shot and not on fighting off insects, stock your first aid kit with an effective insect repellent (with a high concentration of DEET or picaridin). Some tropical areas are home to leeches. Although they do not transmit diseases, they are extremely unpleasant. Gaiters that cover your boots and calves can partially eliminate this problem.
Respect local regulations
It would be a mistake to judge conditions in another country by what you are used to in your own. First, make sure your equipment is not subject to any special regulations. In some countries, just having binoculars can be problematic. If you want to take photos with a drone, check the rules for its use in that country (they tend to get stricter every year).
Also pay attention to the extent to which you can move around independently in the wilderness. Some places are only accessible with a local guide. Elsewhere, you may need permission from the landowner. Be especially careful when taking photographs near military facilities. In some countries, there may even be a problem with “forgotten” anti-personnel mines from recent conflicts. Unless you did good research beforehand or were lucky enough to be warned by locals, you would have no way of knowing…
To summarize. If you are traveling alone, listen to the locals and take an active interest in local regulations.
People are mostly nice, but there are exceptions
The cost of a wildlife photographer’s equipment sometimes exceeds the value of a car. At the same time, it is relatively easy to grab such equipment and disappear in dark streets. As tempting as it can be, there are some places where it’s just not a good idea to pull out a camera with a big telephoto lens. Some cities in South America and Africa are definitely among these places. Don’t show off your expensive gear. Only take your gear out of your backpack when it’s safe to do so.
In most parts of the world, the danger from people decreases with distance from major cities. But that’s not always the case. Colombia’s civil war is thankfully a thing of the past, but violence hasn’t completely disappeared from the local mountains and forests. Always be aware of the current situation in the area.
An example from my experience. When I arrived in the Colombian town of Paz de Río about ten years ago, I found it very useful to communicate with the municipal police and the management of the local coal mines. After explaining what I wanted to do in the surrounding forests, I even got my own driver to take me to and from the forest on his motorcycle. Soon the local army knew me by name and I felt extremely safe.
If, despite your best efforts, you are attacked, don’t fight for your equipment. Not even an 800mm f/5.6 lens is worth more than your health or your life. Your equipment is one thing, but the photos you’ve taken are another. That’s why, in preparation for a robbery or lost equipment, it’s a good idea to back up all your photos in two places. Never put all your eggs in one basket. The best thing to do is to keep one SSD in your photo backpack and the other (with the same photos) in your hotel room.
If you’re a frequent traveler, consider insuring your gear. Standard travel insurance likely won’t cover the loss of expensive camera equipment. However, there are insurance policies specifically designed for photographers.
Animals are mostly harmless, but there are exceptions
If there is ever any unpleasantness from animals, the blame is almost always on our side. Freak events can occur, but 99% of dangerous animal encounters are preventable.
Looking back, my only truly dangerous interactions with animals have been with dogs. I once fought off an attack by a whole pack. Club in my hand, swinging like the mythical Hercules against the Nemean Lion. Those were hard moments.
Street dogs usually know what a rock means in the hands of a human. Often just pretending to pick up a stone from the ground works. If all else fails and a bite occurs (this is true for any mammal), always assume that the animal is rabid. If you catch rabies and do nothing about it, then you have the only certainty in this world – death. Fortunately, post-bite rabies vaccines tend to be relatively available, even in the countries from whose health care you shouldn’t have high expectations.
Another real threat is contact with common ectoparasites such as ticks, mosquitoes, or other Diptera such as the tsetse fly and the like. The bites themselves fall into the category of annoyances = much worse are the diseases that these arthropods carry. Namely, encephalitis, malaria, trypanosomiasis, dengue, leishmaniasis, yellow fever, and a number of others. Find out which of these diseases are a risk in your destination and make sure you have the appropriate prophylaxis (if there is one). Insect repellent, long sleeves and pants, and mosquito nets will also help.
Venomous snakes can be a threat in some parts of the world. India in particular is notorious for this. But most deaths are caused by a combination of bare feet and darkness. If you can eliminate these factors, you should avoid snakebites. After all, any reasonable snake will prefer to avoid you, although there are exceptions. In areas where arboreal poisonous snakes occur, you’d better stay on the trails.
In general, there are virtually no animals today for which humans are a natural food source. That doesn’t mean that some animals don’t occasionally feast on humans. The biggest example is crocodiles. Where Nile crocodiles, saltwater crocodiles, or even alligators are present, it is a good idea to give up the habit of photographing aquatic birds directly from the water’s surface.
Most animals do not see humans as food, but as a threat. The typical resolution to an encounter is that they will run away. Some, however, will counterattack, and it’s not just carnivores that do so. I am more worried in general about herbivores like bison, hippos, and deer. Don’t be fooled by the peaceful appearance of the elk in the parking lot of Yellowstone. The transition from peacefully grazing animal to attacking machine can be surprisingly quick.
Whatever animal you photograph, think not only of your own safety, but also of the safety of the animal itself. Study animal behavior, and ask local guides, rangers, or zoologists. Remember that no photo is worth risking the health or life of any creature involved – either the one in front of the camera or the one behind it.